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What You Need to Know About Anxiety Disorders

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Updated November 11, 2005

What You Need to Know About Anxiety Disorders

We all feel anxious sometimes. Most of us, for example, feel some anxiety when we speak in front of a large audience. Normal anxiety serves a purpose. It helps you gear up to face a threatening situation. It makes you study harder, and keeps you on your toes when you're making a speech.

If you have an anxiety disorder, this normally helpful emotion can keep you from coping and can disrupt your daily life. Anxiety disorders are more than just a case of "nerves." They are illnesses, often related to the biological makeup and life experiences of the individual, and they frequently run in families. There are a number of anxiety disorders, each with its own distinct features.

You may feel anxious most of the time without any reason. Some people feel so uncomfortable that they stop some everyday activities. Others have occasional bouts of anxiety so intense they terrify and immobilize them.

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all the mental disorders. Researchers continue to learn more about the nature of anxiety disorders, their causes, and how to alleviate them. People often misunderstand these disorders and think individuals should be able to overcome the symptoms by sheer willpower. This is not possible, but there are treatments that can help.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is when people feel anxious almost all the time. They feel chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, even though nothing seems to provoke it. People with GAD are always anticipating disaster, and they often worry excessively about health, money, family, or work. The source of the worry may be hard to pinpoint. For some, the thought of getting through the day provokes anxiety.

People with GAD can't seem to let go of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They seem unable to relax, and may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms often accompany GAD, including:

  • trembling, twitching, and muscle tension
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • sweating or hot flashes
  • feeling lightheaded or out of breath
  • nausea or a need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • the sensation of a lump in the throat.
  • exaggerated startle response
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating

People with GAD can usually function at socially and at work. Unlike many other anxiety disorders, people with GAD don't usually avoid certain situations as a result of their disorder. In rare cases GAD can be debilitating.

GAD comes on gradually and usually starts in childhood or adolescence. It is more common in women and sometimes runs in families. GAD is diagnosed when someone spends at least 6 months worrying excessively about a number of everyday problems

The symptoms of GAD seem to diminish with age. Successful treatment may include a variety of medications. Research into the medications is ongoing. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, and biofeedback to control muscle tension can also be helpful.

Panic Disorder

Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder) and Specific Phobias

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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